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It happened on June 10, 2013.

Byron Buxton, playing center field for the Low-A Cedar Rapids Kernels, took a stride to his right, then, realizing the ball was ticketed for the gap in left-center, raced some 85 feet back—I measured—to meet the ball before it completed its descent, diving headlong on the warning track to snare it.

It works better in video form:

Buxton's reaction time, first step, and eventual route might not grade out particularly well on Statcast, but that's kind of the point. The dude didn't read the ball well off the bat and he didn't take the most direct path to it, but he still made the catch.

That catch was perhaps the defining moment of Buxton, The Prospect, as it marked the high point of a season in which he hit .334/.424/.520 across two levels—Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers—as a 19-year-old. The 2013 season catapulted Buxton from an intriguing talent into the best prospect in the game, as he earned No. 1 prospect status from Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and MLB.com by the start of the 2014 campaign.

It's gone downhill since for two reasons: (1) not every super-prospect develops as smoothly as Mike Trout and (2) there was nowhere to go but down. Buxton's battled numerous freak injuries and signs of mortality at the plate over the past two seasons, which included a major-league debut in 2015, but only Corey Seager has usurped him on BP's Top 101. Despite the hiccups, Buxton still bristles with five-tool greatness.

***

PECOTA is designed, at least in part, to temper our expectations of greatness. It ties together reams of emotionless data, applies a healthy dose of regression, and generally spits out something more pessimistic than we'd like, especially when it relates to uber prospects. Here's what it says about Buxton (and what it said about Trout after his debut season):

Player

WARP

Byron Buxton, 2016

4.6

Mike Trout, 2012

0.6

Whoa. PECOTA loves Buxton—sorta, anyway.

That 4.6 WARP figure is the 15th-best mark in the game heading into 2016, just 2.7 WARP off modern-day Trout, and ahead of established stars like Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, and Alex Gordon. However, with a projected .256 TAv—in line with established non-stars like Ben Paulsen, Nick Castellanos, and Rhys Hoskins—almost all of Buxton's value is coming from his defense, which PECOTA pegs at +24 runs in center field . . . +24 runs in center field. Whoa.

When I first read that number, I emailed BP's Rob McQuown to make sure Aaron Gleeman hadn't hacked into PECOTA. He assured me that Buxton's projected FRAA was correct, although he also noted that it was a topic of discussion among BP staffers before PECOTA went live. It's the sort of number that jumps out at you, even given ample video evidence (see: The Catch) and scouting report after scouting report detailing Buxton's outfield exploits.

Here are Buxton's historical FRAA numbers:

Year

Games

FRAA

FRAA/150

2012

48

0.7

2.2

2013

125

11.9

14.3

2014

31

5.6

27.1

2015

118

22.1

28.1

Total

322

40.3

18.8

Over the last two seasons, Buxton has played in 149 games and racked up 27.7 FRAA, all while dealing with inconsistent playing time brought on by injuries. He's also entering his age-22 season, which should be somewhere near his defensive peak. That's the statistical argument for +24. The argument against it is that Buxton's career FRAA/150 is five runs off that mark, and that almost all of his performance has taken place in the minor leagues. In theory, there's probably a pretty big regression-to-the-mean factor here, and projecting someone to be this good is a branch PECOTA rarely wanders onto.

How often does PECOTA project a center fielder for a +10-or-better FRAA (and how do they subsequently perform)?
Since 2006, PECOTA has projected just 18 players for a double digit (positive) FRAA in center field. Among those players, only 13 played at least 50 games in center during the year in question, and here's how the group fared:

Projected FRAA/150

Actual FRAA/150

17.4

4.5

That's a pretty big collective drop off from the projections, but there's an important caveat here. FRAA has undergone numerous changes over the years, and the past projections are based off a different formula than our current (and historical) FRAA numbers.

Since 2014, five players have met the above qualifications, and their performance has come in just four runs worse than their projections—12.4 compared to 16.4. That could be thanks to increased continuity with FRAA, or it could be something else. We're in the realm of small samples here.

Ignoring catchers, here are the best defensive projections for 2016:

Player

Pos.

FRAA

1) Kevin Kiermaier

CF

27.1

2) Byron Buxton

CF

24

3) Manny Machado

3B

20.5

4) Nolan Arenado

3B

17.3

5) Jason Heyward

RF

15.3

Buxton's in rarified air, with only defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier notching a better defensive projection going into 2016. The next closest center fielder is Lorenzo Cain, way back at +11.7.

How often does a center fielder put up a +24-or-better FRAA?
Not often. Since 1990, here they are:

Player

Year

FRAA

1) Andruw Jones

1999

47.8

2) Darin Erstad

2002

31.7

3) Kevin Kiermaier

2015

31.2

4) Andruw Jones

1998

28.9

5) Andruw Jones

2001

28.2

6) Coco Crisp

2007

28.0

7) Kenny Lofton

1992

27.6

8) Torii Hunter

2001

24.9

9) Mark Kotsay

2003

23.9

Lower the threshold to +20 runs, and you get 24 different player seasons—or about one a year. Lower it to +15, and you get 46 seasons, including one from Ichiro (2007), one from Richard Hidalgo (2000), and two from Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 and 2000). Point is, they don't happen often.

***

Perhaps the best argument for Buxton as a future all-time great defender in center field before he's logged 50 games in the majors is the visual evidence—like The Catch embedded above, or this one, or this one, or this one (with Statcast treatment), or this one, or this one. Buxton's blessed with long, smooth strides, the kind of running style that makes it look like there's always another gear available. He's been clocked sub-4.0 home to first (and that's from the right side), which shows he also possesses super-natural acceleration. Acceleration, cruising speed, tight cornering . . . get this guy a car commercial.

When you examine his defense beyond the pure foot speed—the reactions, the first steps, the routes—it feels like there's plenty of room for him to refine the periphery skills of the position. Remember, he's missed significant developmental time in each of the past two seasons, and he's only been able to legally drink for 440 days. There's a scary combination of tools, performance, and potential here, and the sky's the limit long-term. If I had to, though, I'd still take the under on that +24 FRAA. BP's Minor League editor, Craig Goldstein, agrees, noting that while Buxton's a potential elite defender in center, if he had to throw a number on him, it'd be closer to +15. (He also noted that there's room to improve, given the missed developmental time, and that +20-and-up wouldn't surprise him.)

The good news is that spring training is underway, and Buxton will soon be roaming the outfields of the Grapefruit League, then the American League, and we'll gain a much clearer picture of just how good he can be out there.

Thanks to Sam Miller, Rob McQuown, and Craig Goldstein for assistance.